Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a naval hero in the conflict with England and the American Revolution in 1778, caught the eye of Louis XVI, who sent him on a famous round-the-world expedition to achieve political, commercial and scientific objectives. He vanished at sea in 1788.
In 1785 Louis XVI’s minister of the navy, maréchal de Castries, talked the king into asking Lapérouse to make a round-the-world voyage of discovery. Lapérouse’s bravery during the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which France participated against England, had come to the monarch’s attention. Louis XVI commissioned the expedition in order to restore political power in France: it was necessary to build up the French navy, seek new trading partners and pick up where Captain Cook had left off in the areas of geography, hydrography, physics, astronomy, mineralogy, botany and meteorology. The king was very interested in sailing, the sciences, geography and the exploration of the world.
The expedition was an extraordinary human adventure. Two frigates, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, set sail with 110 officers, scientists and sailors each as well as two commanders, Lapérouse and Fleuriot de Langle. They had the finest measuring and observation equipment of the day as well as a library of science books.
The voyage was planned to last three years, so provisioning the ships was a painstaking operation. Three hundred and fifty barrels of foodstuffs and 1,000 tonnes of equipment and items intended for trade at the expedition’s various ports of call were loaded on to the vessels. The Boussole and Astrolabe sailed the seven seas from 1785 until vanishing in 1788. They were expected back in France in the summer of 1789 but the court had no news from Lapérouse after he left Australia in March 1788. The worried king sent an expedition to rescue him and his crews, but to no avail. The wrecks were eventually found at Vanikoro, in the middle of the South Pacific, in 1826.